The Best Shoulder Exercises: How Many Reps and Sets?

Skimpy summer clothes are much more fun to wear when you know the best shoulder exercises to inspire bare arm confidence. Learn the correct form, as well as how many reps and sets of shoulder exercises will work best for you.

The exercises and reps that you do, depend on your goals.
Credit: yoh4nn/E+/GettyImages


The best exercises targeting your shoulders include lateral raises, front raises, shoulder presses, upright rows, plank taps and more. Complete three to five sets of each exercise, with each set consisting of eight to 12 reps.

Spot Reduction Is a Myth

When starting a shoulder workout, it's important to recognize that spot reduction, or the idea that you can lose fat in just one targeted area of your body, is a complete myth. So if you are looking to replace arm fat with toned muscle, you must also incorporate cardiovascular exercise into your routine — and often.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week. An easy way to think about this is to schedule three to five 30-minute cardio sessions per week. The more intense each session is, the fewer sessions you'll need.

For example, if you opt for high-intensity interval training or treadmill sprint classes, you may only require three cardio sessions per week. In addition, you'll also want to complete targeted strength training for your shoulders.

Read more: Super-Easy Gym Workout Plan to Lose Weight for a Woman

Lift Heavy Weights

According to the American Council on Exercise, the fastest way to increase muscle tone is to lift heavy dumbbells. Be mindful, though — the term "heavy" varies greatly from person to person.

As a general rule of thumb, select weights that cause you to reach fatigue after eight to 12 repetitions. For the average man or woman, this is typically anywhere from eight to 30 pounds.

Another important myth to debunk is that women will "bulk up" if they lift heavy dumbbells. That's simply not true. The Office on Women's Health explains that the likelihood of a woman becoming bulky from lifting heavy weights is very slim. This is because women have less testosterone than men and their bodies naturally have more body fat.

Generally speaking, strength training and weight lifting are very healthy for most women and are highly encouraged. Don't be shy about selecting bigger dumbbells — they only lead to a leaner, tighter body.

Read more: How Many Reps Should I Do While Strength Training to Lose Weight?

1. Shoulder Exercises With Dumbbells

There are many great resistance exercises to try with dumbbells. 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 requires less equipment.

  1. Stand with your feet about hip distance 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 and then exhale as you press the dumbbells overhead with your grip pointing 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 eight 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 distance apart with a slight bend in your knees and a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Position your grip in front of your body with your arms extended long and your palms facing your body with hands together.
  3. Allow your elbows to bow out wide as you lift the dumbbells directly upward (not outward) to the height of your breast bone. 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 eight 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 distance apart with a slight bend in your knees and one dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Position your arms long, at the sides of your body, with your grip facing your body.
  3. With a microbend in your elbows, elevate your arms up and out wide as you lift your dumbbells. Aim to get your extended arms parallel to the ground, if possible, but do not lift higher than the height of your shoulders.
  4. Exhale up, inhale down and repeat eight 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 distance apart with a slight bend in your knees and one dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Position your arms long and in front of your legs with your grip facing your body.
  3. With a microbend in your elbows, elevate your extended 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 before trying another rep.
  5. Exhale up, inhale down and repeat eight to 12 reps.

2. Shoulder Exercises Using Body Weight

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

Move 1: Plank Shoulder Taps

Plank shoulder taps do not require equipment and they are a great multitasking exercise, targeting your shoulders and your core at the same time.

  1. Get into proper 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 distance apart so that your body has a stable base in plank. Using that stability, slowly lift your right hand off the ground and gently tap it to your left shoulder.
  3. Lower your right hand back into plank and 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.
  4. Repeat, right hand and then left hand, until you reach fatigue. Beginners can try doing this for 30 seconds and then working up to a minute.


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.

Read more: The 4-Week Plank Challenge

Move 2: Mummy Kicks

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

  1. From a standing position, raise your arms long and straight out in front of your body. 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 a minute.
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