The 20 Best Shoulder Exercises for Every Piece of Equipment

To challenge your shoulder while keeping your joints healthy, focus on form.
Image Credit: Srdjanns74/iStock/GettyImages

When it comes to upper-body workouts, most people focus on their biceps and triceps. But if you ultimately want to build stronger arms and move through your life and workouts without pain, prioritizing your shoulders is key.

That's because your shoulders don't just support you as press off the ground during push-ups. They also stabilize your arms as you grab something off a tall shelf or carry groceries in from the car.

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And being able to do simple tasks without stiffness or weakness goes a long way in providing you with the freedom, confidence and ability to live your life on your own terms — especially through the years.

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

Read on for the 20 best shoulder exercises you can do with resistance bands, dumbbells, kettlebells and a barbell landmine. Plus, recommendations on the best rep and set schemes for max shoulder results.

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Resistance Band Exercises

A resistance band isn't just for strengthening your shoulders at home. It's a great tool, no matter where you are, for increasing shoulder size and strength because it challenges your muscles against constant tension. With these resistance band shoulder exercises from Connecticut-based certified personal trainer Lauren Seib, CPT, you train your muscles both concentrically and eccentrically. Read: Even the lowering phase is hard.

Move 1: Banded Plank Walk-Out

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Place a mini band around your wrists and get into a plank with your hands directly under your shoulders and legs extended behind you so your body is in a straight line from head to toe.
  2. Keeping your body still, lift one hand off the ground and move it outward a few inches and place it on the ground there, then reverse the motion. Repeat with your opposite hand.
  3. That's 1 rep. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

By firmly pressing your arm out and against the band, you work your lateral deltoid (side shoulder muscle). You also challenge the stability of your opposite arm in an isometric hold.

Move 2: Front Raise to Pull Apart

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Place a mini band around your wrists. Start with your arms down in front of you, separating them wide enough so that there’s some tension in the band.
  2. Keeping your arms straight, lift your hands directly in front of you to shoulder height.
  3. Then, moving through your shoulders, stretch the band across your chest.
  4. Bring your hands back in and lower your arms down to the starting position.
  5. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Tip

Engage your anterior and lateral delts (front and side shoulder muscles) by actively pressing out on the band as you raise your arms. Then, really test the band’s stretch when your arms are parallel to the floor. There are lots of posture, stability and mobility benefits here!

Move 3: Single-Arm Overhead Press

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Take a long resistance band and stand on one end of it with one foot.
  2. Grab the opposite end of the band with your same side's hand, palm facing forward.
  3. Keeping your back straight and without moving your torso, press your arm overhead. Finish with your biceps by your ear.
  4. Slowly lower your arm back down until your hand is at shoulder height.
  5. Do 10 to 12 reps, then switch sides. Do 3 sets.

This foundational anterior delt exercise is great for strengthening your upper body while testing your stability. By isolating one arm at a time, you’re able to simultaneously train your posture and core strength.

Move 4: Single-Arm Reverse Fly

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Wrap a long resistance band around a high anchor point. Stand to the side of the band.
  2. Grab the resistance band with your farthest hand. Adjust your stance so that while you're holding the band directly in front of you, the band is taut.
  3. Pull the band diagonally back and outward.
  4. Slowly bring your arm back inward.
  5. Do 10 to 12 reps, then turn and switch sides. Do 3 sets.

Tackle the back shoulder muscles with this move. While reverse flys are great with dumbbells, the band's constant tension increases the challenge. It should feel like you’re resisting the band even as you're bringing your arm back inward.

Move 5: Upright Row

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Sets 3
Reps 12
  1. Stand with your feet on the band about hip-width apart. Create an “X” with the band and grab onto each opposite end with both hands, palms facing the floor.
  2. Allowing your elbows to flare out, raise your hands up under your chin.
  3. Slowly lower back down.
  4. Do 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.

A great strengthener for your anterior and lateral delts, the upright row is an effective compound exercise that will give your shoulders muscle definition. For some people with existing shoulder issues, this movement can sometimes be uncomfortable. If it is for you, tweak your form or sub it out for another move.

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Kettlebell Exercises

Slow and steady is the name of the game when it comes to kettlebell shoulder exercises. Grab a set of kettlebells and try these moves from Trevor Franklin, CPT, a certified personal trainer and kettlebell coach at For All Movement in New York City.

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Move 1: Arm Bar

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Sets 3
Time 10 Sec
  1. Lie on the ground with one arm extended out to the side. Hold a kettlebell in your other hand toward the ceiling. Bend your same side's leg and keep your foot flat on the floor. Extend your opposite leg on the ground.
  2. Keeping the kettlebell straight up, roll onto your side opposite of the kettlebell, ending with your free arm extended straight on the ground under your head. The leg on the same side of the kettlebell should still be bent but across your body. The other leg should still be extended, but now facing toward the floor.
  3. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat for 3 sets.

Use the kettlebell arm bar to warm up your shoulders and all the stabilizing muscles around them. The move also works your thoracic spine (middle back) and hip mobility.

Move 2: Strict Arm Press

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Sets 3
Reps 8
  1. Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart and place the kettlebell between the arches of your feet.
  2. Clean the kettlebell up and hold it at shoulder level.
  3. Keeping your back and body still, look at the bell as you press it up overhead. Lower the weight back to shoulder level, and repeat.
  4. Do 8 to 10 reps, then switch sides. Do 3 sets.

If you have two bells, you can also do this kettlebell shoulder move with both arms at the same time.

Move 3: Single-Arm Push Press

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Sets 3
Reps 8
  1. Hold the kettlebell at your shoulder with your elbow pointing straight down.
  2. Bend your knees slightly and explode upward as you use the momentum in your legs to push the kettlebell overhead.
  3. Pause, then lower the weight back to shoulder level.
  4. Do 8 to 10 reps, then switch sides. Do 3 sets.

With a dip-and-drive motion, the kettlebell push-press lets you lift more weight than you could, using only your shoulders. Do the move with a lighter weight and for more reps to really tax your cardio.

Move 4: Single-Arm Split-Squat Press

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Sets 3
Reps 8
  1. Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart.
  2. Clean one kettlebell up and hold it at shoulder level.
  3. Separate your legs into a split squat stance by stepping back with the leg on the same side as the kettlebell. Lower both legs until they're at 90 degrees. The back knee should be hovering just a few inches above the ground.
  4. Keeping your legs in that lunge position, press the kettlebell overhead.
  5. Lower the kettlebell back to shoulder level.
  6. Do 8 to 10 reps, then switch sides. Do 3 sets.

This move's split stance adds a core and lower-body stability challenge.

Move 5: Snatch

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Sets 3
Reps 8
  1. Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart and place a kettlebell a few inches in front of you on the ground.
  2. Start the kettlebell swing by holding the kettlebell with one hand and sending your hips back, bending your knees. Hike the kettlebell between your legs.
  3. As you drive through your hips to come to the top of your swing, squeeze your shoulder blades and use your elbow to pull the kettlebell high up overhead.
  4. As the kettlebell comes up overhead, punch your hand upward toward the ceiling, allowing the weight to flip to the backside of your hand.
  5. Reverse the motion and repeat.
  6. Do 8 to 10 reps, then switch sides. Do 3 sets.

This move is at the top of the kettlebell shoulder exercises food chain. That's because, with it, you have to combine total-body movements to drive the kettlebell overhead: You need a proper hike, hip drive and shoulder stability and strength to control the kettlebell when it gets to the top. Do this exercise only after you've built some confidence and strength with kettlebell movements like cleans.

Dumbbell Exercises

Even if you have access to only one set of dumbbells, there are plenty of great ways to increase shoulder strength Try these dumbbell shoulder exercises from Andrew Nuñez, CPT, founder of Drew's Workout and trainer at Barry's in Los Angeles.

Move 1: Shoulder Upright Row

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. With your palms facing the floor, allow your elbows to flare out as you raise your hands and dumbbells up to chin height. At the top, your arms should be parallel to the floor.
  3. Slowly lower the weights back down.
  4. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Unlike the traditional dumbbell upright row, this variation involves leading with your hands rather than your elbows. This allows you to target more of your back muscles as well as your shoulders. It also makes the move more gentle on your joints.

Move 2: Figure 8 Hold and Punch

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Hold one medium dumbbell vertically with both hands and extend your arms out in front of you so the dumbbell is at shoulder height.
  2. Draw a figure 8 in the air with the dumbbell.
  3. Then, bring the dumbbell in toward your chest and punch it straight out twice.
  4. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

For the ultimate shoulder burnout, tack on this exercise at the end of your arm day routine. From beginning to end, your shoulders never stop working.

Move 3: Around the World

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Kneel on the floor and hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms at your sides, palms facing forward.
  2. Keeping your arms straight, draw a semi-circle on either side with each dumbbell, raising them out to the sides and then up overhead, palms still facing forward.
  3. Then, with your arms straight, lower the dumbbells out in front of you to shoulder height, palms now facing the floor.
  4. Next, raise the dumbbells out to your sides, palms still facing the floor.
  5. Lower the dumbbells down to your sides.
  6. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

This exercise targets every muscle of the shoulder, strengthening the posterior, anterior and lateral deltoids. And as a bonus, it also works your core. Do this exercise slowly and with control, making sure to open your arms wide with each rep. Choose a light set of weights as this movement is very difficult.

Move 4: Around the Crown

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Hold one medium dumbbell horizontally with both hands on either end. Extend your arms out in front of you so the dumbbell is at shoulder height.
  2. Keeping your arms straight, rotate the dumbbell so that your left hand is on top and your right hand is on the bottom. Then rotate the opposite way so your right hand is on top, and your left hand is on the bottom. Rotate back to the starting position with both hands on either side.
  3. Circle the dumbbell around the crown of your head, ending in the starting position with your arms extended holding the dumbbell out in front of you.
  4. Keeping your arms straight, lower the dumbbell down to your thighs, then raise the arms and dumbbell back up to the starting position.
  5. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

This exercise is great for improving shoulder mobility and range of motion.

Move 5: Rotator Cuff Press

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Sets 3
Reps 8
  1. Sit on a bench or box with one foot up on the bench and your knee bent.
  2. Hold a dumbbell with your same side's hand and bend your elbow to 90 degrees. Place your elbow against your knee with the dumbbell facing up toward the ceiling, palm facing forward.
  3. Rotate your elbow to lower the dumbbell as far as you’re able to, then raise it back up. Repeat 3 times.
  4. Keeping your palm facing forward, press the dumbbell up overhead. Lower it back down. Repeat 3 times. This is 1 rep.
  5. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.

A great way to focus on your rotator cuff without an exercise machine, this move forces you to use your own body weight to create tension.

Landmine Exercises

To strengthen your shoulders with barbell shoulder exercises, setting up your bar in a landmine is a very shoulder-friendly way to go about it. That's because, with landmines, you're not pushing directly overhead (like you might with the traditional barbell press), so you need less mobility and flexibility. Lots of overhead athletes like baseball players use the landmine press as a foundational part of their training. Try these landmine shoulder exercises from Noam Tamir, CSCS, owner of TS Fitness in New York City.

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Move 1: Tall Kneeling Press

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Get into a tall kneeling position and hold the barbell in both hands at chest level.
  2. As you press the barbell overhead, lean slightly forward. Slowly lower the bar back to the starting position.
  3. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

For those with tight hips, this barbell exercise also allows the hip flexors to get a bit of a stretch.

Move 2: Iso Split Squat Single-Arm Press

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Stand in a split squat stance.
  2. Grab the bar with the opposite hand as the front foot and hold it at shoulder height.
  3. Press the bar overhead, then lower it down to shoulder height.
  4. Complete 10 to 12 reps on one side, then switch sides. Do 3 sets.

By standing in a split squat stance, you're challenging the balance of your body, which forces the shoulder and core to work harder to stabilize.

Move 3: Rotational Power Punch

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Get in a split stance next to the barbell and face away from the landmine, with your closest leg back and the other forward.
  2. Bend your knees and grab the barbell with the hand closest to it, palm facing you.
  3. Explosively stand, rotating toward the barbell.
  4. Switch your hands and punch the barbell into the air with the other hand so you're facing the landmine.
  5. Slowly lower the bar back down to the starting position.
  6. Do 10 to 12 reps, then switch sides. Do 3 sets.

This explosive shoulder exercise not only increases strength but also challenges your speed, stability and stamina. It hits your back muscles, too, to help you keep your shoulders balanced.

Move 4: Banded Landmine Press

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Stand on a long resistance band with your feet shoulder-width apart. Wrap the other end of the resistance band around the end of the barbell.
  2. Grab the barbell with both hands and hold it at chest height.
  3. Lean slightly forward as you press the bar overhead, then lower it back to chest height.
  4. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Adding a resistance band to this exercise makes it more challenging on the shoulders as you have constant tension, even on the downward phase of each rep.

Move 5: Landmine Z Press

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Sets 3
Reps 10
  1. Sit on the ground with your legs extended out to the sides, creating a "V" shape. The barbell should be in the middle.
  2. Grab the barbell with both hands and hold it at chest height.
  3. Lean slightly forward as you press the bar overhead, then lower it back to chest height.
  4. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Because you're doing this exercise from a seated position, you can't use your legs at all, forcing you to not only work the shoulders but also engage the core muscles.

Structuring Your Shoulder Workouts

When most people talk about strengthening their shoulders, they're focused on the deltoid muscles — anterior, lateral and posterior. These form a cap over your shoulder joint and, when grown, give you a broader look from the front (and back).

Looking squarely at the back, however, you've also got your rotator cuff muscles — the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. Apart from giving your upper back a strong and sculpted look, these muscles are vital to shoulder health. That's because they help your humerus (upper arm), scapula (shoulder blade) and clavicle (collarbone) work together, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

For the best results, your shoulder workouts should train all of these shoulder muscles, and in balance with one another.

Weights, Sets and Reps

According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), one of the fastest ways to build muscle size and strength is to lift heavy weights. Be mindful, though — the term "heavy" varies greatly from person to person.

As a general rule, select resistance levels that fatigue your muscles after 8 to 12 reps, but you're still able to maintain good form. (Your last 2 reps should feel like a struggle but still doable.) For the average person, this is typically anywhere from 8 to 30 pounds. Or, if you're using resistance bands, go for a light- to medium-level one. If you're brand new to lifting, though, you may want to start with 5 pounds. Or a very light to light band.

In general, to build strength and size, you want to do 3 to 6 sets of 6 to 12 reps, according to the ACE. For most moves, 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps is a good place to start while keeping your injury risk to a minimum. If you're more interested in muscle endurance than size, lighter sets of more than 12 reps is ideal.

The heavier your weights are, the fewer reps you can include in a set, and the lighter they are, the more reps you can do. Generally, as reps decrease, sets increase — and vice versa.

Frequency

How often you work your shoulders also depends on your fitness level and goals. 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.

Frequent training is ideal when you want to increase your muscle size and shoulder width. When chasing size goals, make sure to include shoulder isolation exercises as well as chest and back exercises (which also touch your shoulders) at least three times per week.

Duration

For most shoulder-specific workouts, 20 or 30 minutes should be plenty of time to train all three segments of your deltoids as well as the rotator cuffs. This allows you to do three to four different exercises.

If you're integrating shoulder-isolation exercises into your upper-body or pushing days, picking two or three each time can help polish off your other lifts.

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